Some scholars are busily debunking the Bible's account of the great King David, asking: Was he really all that great? Was he largely legendary, Judaism's version of Britain's legendary King Arthur, or totally fictional?
These matters are crucial not only for Jews but for Christians, since Jesus' biblical identity as the messiah stems from David's family line.
Skepticism about the Hebrew Bible's history was promoted to popular audiences in "The Bible Unearthed" (2001) by Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Their most recent book focuses on "David and Solomon" (Free Press).
Though some scholars claimed David never existed, in 1993 archaeologists discovered a stone inscription from 835 B.C. that mentions "the house of David." The authors say that established the existence of a dynastic founder named David and that shortly after his 10th-century era a line of kings "traced their legitimacy back to David."
However, Finkelstein considers the Bible seriously distorted propaganda. He treats David as a minor bandit chieftain and Jerusalem as a hamlet, not an imperial capital. Supposedly, biblical authors concocted the grander David centuries afterward. The book also implies that his successor, Solomon, didn't build the Temple.
Finkelstein notes that archaeologists haven't found monumental buildings from David's era in Jerusalem. He dismisses links of David and Solomon with buildings unearthed at biblical Megiddo and Hazor. Ordinary readers might not grasp that this depends upon a disputed "low chronology" which would shift dates a century, just after these kings.
In the July-August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Michael Coogan of Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, contends that Finkelstein and Silberman "move from the hypothetical to the improbable to the absurd."
Finkelstein's revised chronology is "not accepted by the majority of archaeologists and biblical scholars," Coogan asserts, citing four scholarly anthologies from the past three years.
Coogan also thinks "David and Solomon" downplays the significance of the Amarna tablets, which include correspondence to Egypt's pharaoh from a 14th-century Jerusalem king. Even if archaeological remains at Jerusalem are lacking, he writes, the tablets indicate that long before David, Jerusalem was the region's chief city-state, with a court and sophisticated scribes.
Discovery of ancient remains in Jerusalem is problematic due to the repeated reconstruction throughout the centuries and the modern inaccessibility of many sites.
Nonetheless, perhaps David's palace has been found. So claims Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar. Finkelstein denies this, claiming Mazar inaccurately dated pottery from the site. "Here, for the time being, matters rest," summarizes Hillel Halkin in the July-August Commentary magazine.
Jerusalem feuds aside, skepticism about David seems to be countered by recent discoveries in the biblical land of Edom (present-day southwest Jordan), also described in Biblical Archaeology Review by field experts Thomas Levy and Mohammad Najjar. Levy is a University of California, San Diego, archaeologist and Najjar directs excavations for Jordan's Department of Antiquities.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Edom had kings before Israel (Genesis 36:31), barred Moses' wandering Israelites (Numbers 20:14-21) and later warred with King David (2 Samuel 8:13-14, 1 Kings 11:15-16).
Until now, many scholars have said that's all bogus because there was no archaeological evidence for a state in Edom until long after David's day. Finkelstein and Silberman typified such skepticism in "Bible Unearthed," which said Edom achieved kingship and statehood only in the seventh century B.C.
But Levy and Najjar say lack of evidence is never conclusive, and in this case previous archaeologists dug in the wrong place. They've now excavated a major fortress that — to their surprise — is dated by radiocarbon tests in David's era. An adjacent copper mill goes back another one to two centuries, closer to Moses' time.
Biblical references have gained "new plausibility," they conclude.